Given the fact that you are reading a wine review website in the days leading up to America’s premier feast day, the odds are overwhelming that you are responsible for bringing the wine for Thanksgiving. Maybe not all of the wine…but I bet you’re on the hook for some of it. Perhaps you’re very comfortable with the task, but more likely you’re uneasy about it, since most Americans are inexperienced and intimidated when it comes to pairing wines and foods--even on their best day. Regardless of which camp you fall into--the confident or the quaking--I’ve got two tactics that can make you a wine-selecting star on the Big Day.
The first move I’d recommend is to branch out and bring a wine that’s unexpected. I’ll grant that this may seem counter-intuitive to those who lack confidence in their selecting abilities (why would I double my risk of being ridiculed by bringing a wine from out of left field?), but stick with me…this will make sense. It will make sense in relation to the meal, and it will also make sense when joined to the second tactic, which is to keep things simple.
Why branch out, avoiding standard choices like Beaujolais, Merlot, or Chardonnay? The key consideration for me is that almost everybody celebrates this holiday with the same family members each year--and almost everybody ends up eating the same damned thing. This is not all bad, and tradition has its place. But it also has its limits. Here are two of them: First, it is not very interesting to eat the same thing on the same day year after year after year. Second, turkey isn’t very interesting in intrinsic terms, and I can prove it.
Turkey’s mediocrity is not a matter of taste, but rather a matter of fact (which is good, since I am an experienced wine critic but not really a food critic). What is my factual evidence? Just ask yourself: When was the last time you ordered turkey in a restaurant? For that matter, when is the last time you even saw turkey offered on a restaurant menu?
That settles that. Turkey is perfectly acceptable but hardly exciting, and yet we are stuck with it as the cornerstone of the biggest culinary extravaganza in the vast majority of American homes every year.
Admittedly, there is a small percentage of the population that rebels against tradition and roasts a goose or a lamb rack. A slightly larger percentage tries to mix up a turkey-based meal, deep-frying the bird or smoking it, and going with new recipes each year for the stuffing, potatoes, cranberries, etc. But let’s face it: Not many Americans are great, adventuresome cooks, and for almost everybody else, this holiday meal poses the biggest challenge in the kitchen all year, both in terms of the number of dishes involved and the number of mouths to feed. Consequently, almost everybody serves the same damned meal again and again, and that is not going to change.
So…change the wine.
I take my own medicine in this regard, just so you know. I decided years ago that Riesling from Alsace and Pinot from Burgundy were probably the best matches for the range of dishes that I eat with my family every year, but I always throw a couple of new wines every Thanksgiving, and everybody gets a charge out of trying something different for the first time. One of my sisters still talks about the year when I included a Gran Reserva from Rioja, which actually outperformed the Burgundy and was downed gleefully by everyone in just a few minutes. We’ve had similar successes with many different whites over the years too, so I’ve got plenty of suggestions for you.
None of these suggestions are the “usual suspects,” but my advice is still not going to be difficult to follow--if you decide to trust me. The list is long enough that you’ll be able to find a few of them no matter where you live. Moreover, you don’t need to get freaked out about particular brands. The wines are all on the exotic side, which means they don’t sell themselves in retail stores, which means that the particular wines you find are almost certain to be good. That’s why they are on the shelf in the stores you visit--not because the importer or retailer thought they’d sell boatloads of them, but because they wine buyer thought they were delicious and worth a gamble with some shelf space.
Another helpful point: All of the wine types I’m recommending are basically medium-bodied and not overly pungent in aroma or intense in flavor. As a result, you aren’t going to shock anybody’s personal taste, even if they’ve never had a wine in the particular category (which is what we’re actually hoping for).
There’s an important reason for choosing wines in this solid-but-simple profile for Thanksgiving. One of the most robust findings to emerge for me from 20 years of professional tasting and restaurant consulting is this: Complex wines are at their best with simple foods, but complex foods are best matched by simple wines.
A great old bottle of Bordeaux is at its best with roast beef or pot roast or simple leg of lamb, just as a simple preparation of duck or veal will let a great bottle of Burgundy or Barolo show all of its many dimensions. By the same token, the wines that really shine across a meal with lots of complex--and even clashing--elements (like Thanksgiving dinner!) are usually ones that are balanced and restrained: Neither too sweet, nor tannic, nor acidic, nor woody, nor heavy, nor light.
If there’s nothing jarring about a wine, it is vastly less likely to prove jarring when paired with any particular food. By extension, the best way to navigate your way across the Thanksgiving table minefield is to play your shot right down the middle.
What does this mean in practical terms? Nothing more complicated than choosing wines made from certain grapes and sourced from particular places in the world that routinely show the perfect profile of balance in terms of flavor, structure and style to work with Thanksgiving dinner. Here’s my list of top performers in this profile:
Friulano from Friuli in north-eastern Italy (preferably from the Collio district)
Pinot Blanc from Alsace, Austria, or Oregon, or Pinot Bianco from Friuli
Garnacha Blanca / Grenache Blanc from Spain’s Catalonia or France’s Rhône
Moschofilero or Roditis from Greece
Soave from Italy’s Veneto Region
Chenin Blanc (a.k.a. “Steen”) from South Africa
Verdelho from Australia
Grüner Veltliner from Austria
Roussanne from California, or in a blend from France’s Rhône Valley
Nero d’Avola from Sicily
Garnacha from Spain’s Navarra
Dolcetto or Dogliani (a Dolcetto specialty zone) from Piedmont in Italy
Agiorghitiko from Greece
Montepulciano from Italy’s Abruzzo
Cariñena from Aragón in Spain
Zweigelt from Austria
Cabernet Franc from France’s Loire Valley, specifically, Chinon or Bourgueil
Every one of these wines will perform very well at your Thanksgiving table, and almost all of them could be purchased for $20 or even less. Indeed, given the fact that less expensive renditions of these types will be simpler than more expensive ones, that may actually make them better matches for Thanksgiving dinner, which is so insanely varied in flavors and textures.
So there you have it…a list of virtually foolproof selections that combine the virtues of high performance and low cost, while also serving the purpose of enhancing everybody’s experience of this typically hidebound meal by introducing a component that is actually…NEW! What a concept!
I hope that you’ll take a chance on one or two of the suggestions from my list, and that you and your companions will enjoy them. I’m thankful for many things in my exceedingly lucky life in the world of wine, but foremost among them are the sheer variety of taste experiences it provides, and the endless opportunities for new discoveries. For me, that’s why it always makes sense to shake up the wines for this holiday devoted to thankfulness.